Men and Women Are Not Interchangeable

Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is adapted from the Introduction of Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas, which features the lives of Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More, Saint Maria of Paris, Corrie ten Boom, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa. Copyright © 2015. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

As I began brainstorming for my new book Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, I wondered whose stories I should tell. I asked friends for suggestions and soliciting their thoughts. In doing so, I encountered an assumption about women’s greatness that wasn’t surprising, but that is worth mentioning here. Many people suggested women who were the first ones to do something that men had already done. Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932, was mentioned, as was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

But what these women had accomplished didn’t exemplify the kind of greatness I had in mind—neither for men nor women. If it had, in writing Seven Men I would have replaced William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with John Glenn and Charles Lindbergh­­.

What struck me as wrong about these suggestions was that they presumed women should somehow be compared to men. The great men in Seven Men were not measured against women, so why should the women in Seven Women be measured against men? I wondered what was behind this way of seeing things, that women should be defined against men? Or that men and women should even be compared to each other?

Designed to Be Different

Two interrelated attitudes seemed at play. First, men and women are in some ways interchangeable, such that what one does the other should do. Second, women are in some kind of competition with men, and for women to progress they must compete with men. This thinking pretends to put men and women on equal footing, but it actually only pits them against each other in a kind of zero-sum competition in which they usually tear each other down.

So the stories of these great women show us that men and woman are not interchangeable. There are things men can and should do that women cannot, and there are things women can and should do that men cannot. So comparing men and women is something like comparing apples and oranges—except apples and oranges are actually far more like each other than are men and women. Apples and oranges can exist without each other, but men and women cannot.

Men and women were deliberately designed to be different. Indeed, we are specifically created as complements to one another—as different halves of a whole that reflects the glory of God. It’s patently obvious we were created to fit together physically; of course, we couldn’t create life if that weren’t the case. So when men cease to be such or when women deny their uniqueness, they make such complementarity impossible, and the whole, as it were, suffers.

We are meant to be different and God wants us to celebrate and rejoice in our differences, not suppress or denigrate them.

Inextricably Intertwined

The lesson in all this is that to put women against men is a form of denigrating women, as though their measure must be determined by masculine standards. The worst standards of masculine value­­—power usually at the top—become the very things some women are told they must aspire to meet. How ironic that modern culture, by so often intimating power as the highest good, should force women to accept what amounts to nothing less than patriarchal thinking.

Of course, this is entirely understandable. Some men have misused their power and strength to harm women. As I explain in the introduction to Seven Men, whatever God gives us is meant for us to use to bless others. God gives men strength and power, generally speaking, only so they will use it to bless those who don’t have it.

But when men fail to do so, women who are victims of the worst expressions of manhood—abrogations of real manhood, in fact­—feel the only way to respond is to wrest that power from men. So the idea of “female empowerment” arose, until it became another ubiquitous and thought-free cliché. But the problem is this idea presupposes the tremendously harmful and distorting idea of a competition for power.

Whether we like it or not, men and women are inextricably intertwined. Because the Bible says we are made in God’s image—“male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27)—the fortunes of one are so linked to the fortunes of the other that there is no way to lift one without lifting the other or degrade one without degrading the other. So whenever men have used their positions of authority or power to denigrate women, they have denigrated themselves and denied themselves the fullness of manhood God intended for them. When women have tried to ape the behavior of power-hungry men, they have degraded themselves and denied themselves the dignity of being above that vulgar fray.

It is all the more noteworthy that the great women I survey in this volume stood on their own as women, but not in a defiant stance that pitted them against men. On the contrary, they were large-hearted and secure enough in who they were to show remarkable magnanimity toward men, with whom they had notably warm relationships.